The Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư contains (6/11a) the following information about a brief conversation between the monarch, Trần Thánh Tông, and the general, Trần Quốc Tuấn (i.e., Trần Hưng Đạo), regarding an attack by the Mongols.
. . . 聖宗陽問國峻之言曰，賊勢如此，我可降之。國峻曰，先斷臣首，然後降。
. . . Thánh Tông feigned a question to Quốc Tuấn, asking, “With the power of the bandits like this, should we surrender to them?” Quốc Tuấn replied, “First cut off my head, and then surrender.”
Note: “my” in the last sentence is thần 臣, meaning “servant.” It is the only hierarchical term in this passage.
This is how it was translated by the Viện Khoa Học Xã Hội:
. . . Thánh Tông vờ bảo Quốc Tuấn rằng: “Thế giặc như vậy, ta phải hàng thôi.” Quốc Tuấn trả lời: “[Bệ hạ] chem đầu tôi trước rồi hãy hàng.”
Thánh Tông feigned a statement to Quốc Tuấn, saying, “With the power of the bandits like this, we should just surrender.” Quốc Tuấn replied, “Cut off my head first [Your Highness], and then surrender.”
Note: “my” in the last sentence is tôi, which historically has the same connotations as thần 臣. It is likewise the only hierarchical term in this passage.
Although Trần Thánh Tông’s question became a statement in this translation, the content is still more or less accurate. Let us now look at how this conversation was rendered in a text from the early twentieth-century, the Biographies of Great People of the Southern Kingdom [南國偉人傳, Nam Quốc vĩ nhân truyện] (6b).
During the Thiệu Bảo era, Yuan people entered and raided. Thánh Tông feigned a question, asking, “With the power of the bandits like this, should we surrender to them?” Quốc Tuấn replied, “First cut off my head, and then surrender.”
Finally this is how this passage was translated by Cung Thúc Thiềm and published by the Bộ Giáo Dục in Saigon in 1968:
Trong niên-hiệu Thiện-bảo, quân Nguyên tràn sang, vua Thánh-Tông hỏi thử ông rằng: “Giặc mạnh như thế, trẫm muốn hàng chúng, có nên không?” Hưng Đạo Vương tâu rằng: “Nhà vua hãy chặt đầu trước, rồi sau hãy hàng giặc!”
During the Thiện (sic.) Bảo era, Yuan troops flooded over, and the king, Thánh-Tông, asked him, “With the bandits as strong as this, I would like to surrender to them. Should this be done?” The Hưng Đạo Prince respectfully said, “The king should chop off my head first, and then he should surrender to the bandits!”
The “him” in “the king, Thánh-Tông, asked him,” is “ông,” a respectful term. Also, Trần Quốc Tuấn “respectfully said” (tâu rằng) in reply. Tâu is a verb which is restricted to describing the movement of information from an official to the king. An official reported to (tâu) the king. It is a very respectful term, and none of this hierarchical language is in the original.
The phrase, “Yuan troops flooded over,” is also not in the original. That text literally says, “Yuan people entered and raided.” This phrase gives no sense of size, like “tràn” – to flood or inundate – does.
This translation also does not indicate that the king’s question was not genuine. When this absence is combined with the manner in which the king’s statement is translated, the king comes across as looking very weak and stupid as compared to the valiant Trần Quốc Tuấn. But both texts say that the king feigned this question (Note for those who read Hán: 佯問 = 陽問). So what was in the king’s mind when he asked this? Clearly he wasn’t as hopeless as this last translation made him out to be.
There is more that could be said about this translation, however my point in going over it is first to point out that it is a bad translation, and second, to note that this is not a unique case. Instead, this is an extremely widespread problem with quốc ngữ “translations.”